In less than a century since Jules Verne’s mythical Nautilus had sailed its twenty thousand leagues under the sea, the American nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus had made the dream a reality.
'Nautilus 90 North' was the code message which announced to the world that, on 3rd August 1958, the submarine – with her 116 crew – had reached the North Pole. ‘Piercing the Pole’ marked the climax of a momentous and on-going undertaking: the first trans-polar voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It began in Puget Sound, USA, and terminated at Portland in England.
Commander William R Anderson was appointed to command Nautilus. From the first hair-raising submerged probe of the Arctic pack ice in 1957 to Operation North Pole itself, the submarine’s complement were pioneers and trail blazers.
The consequences of its success were soon summed up: ‘Not only did this epic voyage open up the North-West passage – the shortest route from Europe to the Pacific, for submarines of the future, it presented an entirely new field for strategic operations in the northernmost part of the Atlantic with all its vast implications for the future … Most significant of all is the fact that Nautilus has proved that nuclear-powered submarines can operate in an area where no surface ships or aircraft can attack them.’
As Commander Anderson explains: ‘My role in the momentous voyage of Nautilus began on a chilly, overcast January day in 1956. At that time I was in charge of instruction in submarine combat tactics at the United States Submarine School in New London, Connecticut…. I received instructions from the Commander, Submarines, Atlantic, to travel to Washington for an interview with Rear Admiral HG Rickover – the “father of the atomic submarine”’.
In 1946, Rickover, who had worked throughout WW2 in the Bureau of Ships, improving the electrical equipment on naval vessels, sought a post at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Oak Ridge plant to study reactor physics. Then a captain, he and three others became fired with the idea to compress, adapt and marinize the reactor, which was used to make plutonium, to a size small enough to fit into a submarine. They devised a system which they theorized would make an ideal propulsion unit.
Rickover reasoned that it would burn only a minute quantity of fuel – a pound of uranium is equal to tens of thousands of gallons of conventional submarine Diesel oil. Equally important was the fact that since the “fire” in the reactor was not a chemical fire, but rather a fission process, no outside air or oxygen would be required to sustain it. Submarines could do away with storage batteries – vastly increasing the space inside – and, in theory, remain submerged indefinitely.
However, from the practical engineering standpoint, the concept was met with ridicule. Rickover, spurned and relegated to office space converted from a ladies’ powder room, nevertheless pursued the idea relentlessly. After several years, he persuaded the Atomic Energy Commission to form a Naval Reactors Branch and to name himself as its chief. In what has been described as a ‘classic manoeuvre in anti-bureaucracy’, Rickover observed: ‘Super-efficient “administrators” are the curse function seems to be to harass brainworkers with trivia and to waste as much time as possible’.
In an incredibly short time, a full-sized, land-based prototype of the submarine nuclear power plant was in operation, inside an authentic submarine hull, at the AEC’s desert test centre in Arco, Idaho. Shortly thereafter, in January 1954, Nautilus was launched. Before joining the vessel, all officers and engineering ratings, regardless of past experience, studied nuclear propulsion for a full year.
The trial runs of Nautilus astonished even the men who had designed and built her, as recorded by Commander Anderson: ‘She could travel at a sustained underwater speed above twenty knots indefinitely. On her shakedown cruise she had travelled 1,381 miles entirely submerged in 89.9 hours, establishing what was then a remarkable submarine record. She was highly manoeuvrable underwater, could submerge to a very great depth, and in exercises with anti-submarine forces she proved herself fifty times as effective as a conventional submarine. Her power plant generated over twice as much mileage per unit of uranium as even the most optimistic forecasts.’
After a year of operations, the performance and reliability of Nautilus had electrified submariners the world over, but especially those at the New London training facility. They appreciated that the vessel was revolutionising naval warfare. Since her commissioning, Nautilus had been a kind of floating exhibit of practical nuclear power and many dignitaries had been on board to see her in action.
In 1956, Commander Anderson transferred to Admiral Rickover’s Reactors Branch in Washington, having been selected as a prospective commanding officer of a nuclear-powered submarine. Anderson described Rickover’s office as a maelstrom. His new boss suggested to Anderson that he write him a memorandum proposing his own programme of study.
It proved to be an interesting assignment: ‘Just what should the prospective commanding officer of a nuclear-powered submarine study? Mathematics? Reactor Physics? Chemistry? I had a few ideas, but I spent about a week talking with Rickover’s top people … Then I wrote a memorandum, based largely on their ideas, which included suggestions for several weeks at Arco, Idaho, to study the land-based prototype of the Nautilus plant, to Westinghouse where the engines were built, to Electric Boat Company, where the submarines were under construction, along with a detailed study programme of the history of the project and of Nautilus operations to date. And finally a detailed curriculum of self-study of the multitude of subjects embracing nuclear propulsion. The admiral raised no objections to my plan. In fact, it became, for a time, a kind of standard programme for prospective commanding officers who came later.’